23 Jan 2008, 1451 hrs IST
Are we a republic? On the eve of Republic Day, it’s rather sacrilegious to ask this question, but on seeing the passive voter who has learnt to bash governance at each step and on seeing political parties being run as family fiefdoms, it’s more appropriate to say we are a nation trying to emerge as a republic. What's the status of inner party democracy and how are parties commonly described? Congress under Sonia, BSP under Mayawati, DMK and ADMK under Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa respectively, RJD under Lalu and Rabri, National Conference under the senior and junior Abdullahs and the Samajwadi Party under Mulayam Singh are some of the expressions used. Words like elections, democratic norms, republican sentiments and acceptance of differing viewpoints are replaced with nominations, authoritarian dictates, crowd-pulling capacities and 'follow or out' norms. Still, we think at least we are doing better than Pakistan and Bangladesh and perhaps Myanmar too. Democratic values are defined not only through personal, political and economic freedoms but also through peoples' actions and strength of the non-political leadership. Those who do not necessarily seek political and public office, yet are determined to correct socio-political wrongs. Those who volunteer to take the lead and be the first to face the bullets but do not don the mantle of rulers. If roads are dirty, temples littered rivers filthy and railway platforms stinking, it's not just the bad ruler and the incompetent bureaucrat to be blamed. The failure of inactive. self-centred people to rise and revolt is equally responsible for a failing state. When political parties comprise climbers and seekers alone at the micro levels as well and peoples' organisations run after government grants and patronage, republics turn into banana republics. In spite of a spectacular urban economic growth and mushrooming religious organisations with astonishing clout, India is witnessing an abysmally low level of non-political leadership that can change the spectrum for the general good of the masses. Temples in most of the holy towns and pilgrim centres remain dirty, priests do not utter mantras correctly and take money from devotees and then we expect the government to do something about it. The government takes over temples, resulting in further deterioration. Delhi is on the banks of the Yamuna, one of the greatest rivers of the land, yet it’s impossible to take a guest for a walk along the Yamuna or use a few drops for religious chores. Yet the government is petitioned, urged, requested to do something about it. That's how the devotees of Krishna, whose life would remain incomplete without the Yamuna, continue with their daily routines. Delhi is ruled by Hindus, so are other states where we have holy shrines. Yet not only do the Hindu rulers belonging to any which party or ideology shy away from making pilgrim centres the best managed centres of faith in the world, but even Hindu billionaires and the socially effective glitterati find the civil dharma too mean to be engaged in.
The other day, ADMK leader Jayalalithaa issued a statement against Chief Minister K. Karunanidhi over the government’s attitude towards Rameshwaram temple where 15 cows had died due to negligence. I was there a couple of weeks ago and saw the world famous temple in a pathetic state. The main door, through which devotees enter the corridor leading to the sanctum sanctorum, had a huge billboard of Karunanidhi as if a darshan of the Chief Minister, an atheist, is compulsory before Lord Shiva's darshan. The corridor was littered with spilled prasadam, flowers and dirt. At the entrance itself, inside the temple precincts, an ugly cabin of Tamil Nadu Tourism had been erected and next to it was a cycle and scooter stand for government employees working there. On the right was a marble plaque announcing the opening of the Mandapam and unveiling of a statue of Raja Bhaskar Sethupathy on February 11, 1974. He was a protector of the Ram Sethu and belonged to a warrior clan created with the sole purpose of protecting the great bridge that Ram built. Inside the temple area, the grandeur of the Rameshwaram pillars is a mesmerising sight – 400 in all in a 4,000-feet long corridor. It's a world heritage site built in the 12th century by the Lankan King Parakram Bahu. Later kings of Ramanathpuram and Travancore kept on adding to the structure. Swami Vivekananda visited the temple on January 27, 1897 and a stone engraving cherishes that memory; his praise of the temple priests has been inscribed in his own handwriting. The Shiva lingam at the temple is believed to have been built by Sita with clay and is one of the 12 jyotilirlingas. Such an ancient temple and world heritage site is in utter neglect and is losing its pristine glory and charm. The well inside the room where prasadam is prepared and the kitchen are in shambles, darkness prevails with a feeble lamp adding confusion to the smoky and darkened room. Devotees are given stale and badly cooked bhog. Still, thousands of Hindus visit the place from across the world. They see, murmur some complaints, have a darshan and go away. The temple management is in the hands of the Tamil Nadu government led by Karunanidhi who is infamous for issuing insulting and sarcastic statements about Ram and Sita. But what about the millions of devotees living around Rameshwaram? We have seen nationwide agitations for and against reservations but people have never demonstrated to save rivers or cleanse temples. There is an organisation in Tamil Nadu with a Hindu tag that objected to a dress worn by an actress at a public function. They said it hurt Hindu sentiments. But these Hindus never get hurt when Sanskrit is abolished or the Hindu population declines or when poor Hindus are converted to other religions. Hypocritical Hindus worship Durga for Shakti, Saraswati for knowledge and Lakshmi for prosperity. But the same Hindu also commits female foeticide in large numbers. And this is true for other religious communities equally. True, there are organisations opposing it and spreading awareness and this has provided positive results. But foes of the girl child abound. In Gaumukh, the source of Ganga, pilgrims leave bindis, plastic bags, incense sticks and other non-perishable items after the puja to 'absolve' themselves of all their sins. Should we blame the government alone if the glacier is shrinking and the heavenly place defining the solitude of divinity looks as if it has been defiled by the devotees themselves? The republic is not just about casting votes, that too at less than 50 per cent roughly along caste lines. Republic is the active participation of people in their own affairs with righteousness as the benchmark of decisions and Gandhi's talisman as a touchstone. It calls for rising above immediate self-interest. That decides the levels of happiness in a society, not bank balances and a mention in Fortune 500 lists. Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana was a great poet and benefactor of the poor and needy. Every evening, a large number of people would visit him seeking help. He would refuse none, but always looked down while giving alms. Once a gentleman asked why do you not even glance at the person who is receiving the money? He replied: “Denhaar koi aur hai, devat hai din rain, log bharam mo pe karein, tase neeche nain (“The real giver is someone else [God], but people perceive I am the one. Hence the eyes look down in embarrassment!). It's bliss to have such humility and it is this pure heart that sanctifies a republic and raises her people's happiness level. The republic thrives on the spirit of giving. Everyone says everything should be done by government and everyone seems to be dissatisfied with everything - municipal corporators, parliamentarians, officers, doctors and drivers. The crowd in religious places is hardly seen to be carrying the responsibility of applying in the outside world what they obtained inside the congregation hall. No one says hate others, yet hate spreads astonishingly. Intolerance increases intolerance and accumulation of ill-gotten wealth further whets the appetite. This is the time when the people of the republic should seriously come together to find way for eliminating religious intolerance and hate based on ideological apartheid. Recently a step was taken in this direction with religious leaders having a global presence and appeal sharing the dais for exactly this purpose – strengthening peace and plurality and resolving conflicts. Led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the day-long deliberations saw Sri Sri Ravishankar, the Dalai Lama, Swami Ramdev, Deoband's Mohammad Madani, Mumbai's Archbishop Oswald Gracious and of course former President Abdul Kalam. Such efforts need peoples' support if the republic has to live its ideals. Once we saw JP movement. It failed. Gandhians have become merely sarkari jholawalas. The last hope lies in those who would unshackle themselves from burden of historical sins and write a fresh new republican order to throw off the fossilised system and its offshoots. The new rebellious generation, already showing signs of revolt and free from the colonial mindset and obsolete ritualism, shall create a new path like Adi Sankara , with just one religion in heart - the good of humanity and elimination of the unrepentant wicked. Trust your tricolour, its going to happen before we leave the world.